20 August 2023

Saint Peter’s Collegiate
Church: the oldest place
in Wolverhampton, and
a great city parish church

Saint Peter’s Collegiate Church is the oldest place in Wolverhampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Peter’s Collegiate Church is the oldest place in Wolverhampton, with a long history that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times and beyond. The church stands cathedral-like on high ground in the centre of Wolverhampton, and is one of the great city parish churches in the Midlands.

The church was central to the development of Wolverhampton and its architectural history is as complex as its religious and institutional history. For many centuries, Saint Peter’s was a chapel royal and from 1480 it was a royal peculiar. Much of Wolverhampton belonged to the dean and canons of the church, which was independent of both the Diocese of Lichfield and the Province of Canterbury.

Until the 18th century, Saint Peter’s was the only church in Wolverhampton and the control of the college extended into the surrounding area, with dependent chapels in several towns and villages in south Staffordshire.

The statue of Lady Wulfrun by Sir Charles Wheeler was presented by the Express and Star to mark the newspaper’s centenary in 1974 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Wolverhampton takes its name from Lady Wulfrun, a tenth century Anglo-Saxon noble woman and reputed mother-in-law of King Canute, who donated vast tracts of land at Hampton to the church. Wulfrun had been granted extensive lands by Ethelred II (‘Ethelred the Unready’) in the year 985. It is said Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury confirmed Lady Wulfrun’s endowment of a minster at Hampton.

From the 12th century, Saint Peter’s was a collegiate church with a college that was constituted of a dean and prebendaries. Saint Peter’s royal connections were affirmed in 1480 in its status as a Royal Peculiar.

Other royal peculiars in Staffordshire and within the boundaries of the Diocese of Lichfield included: Saint Michael’s Collegiate Church, Penkridge, where the Dean was the Archbishop of Dublin; Saint Michael and All Angels’ Church, Tettenhall (1247-1548); and Saint Mary’s Church, Stafford. Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth, was a collegiate church within the diocese, while the Collegiate Church and Royal Free Chapel of Saint Mary the Virgin, Shrewsbury, also within the Diocese of Lichfield, remained a royal peculiar until 1856.

Saint Peter’s was involved in constant political and legal strife over the centuries, and it was dissolved and restored a total of three times, before a fourth and final dissolution in 1846-1848 cleared the way for it to become an urban parish church serving the people and town of Wolverhampton.

The West End of Saint Peter’s Church, Wolverhampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

There is some doubt about the origins of the College of Wolverhampton. The story of the discovery of the founding charter ca 1560, its transcription by William Dugdale in 1640 and its subsequent disappearance cast doubt on the authenticity of the charter.

The college consisted of secular clergy or priests who did not belong to a religious order, rather than monks. All the Domesday entries relating to the church refer to clergy, canons or priests, never to monks, and, despite the display boards around the church grounds, there is no evidence that there ever was a monastery in Wolverhampton.

Samson, who was at Wolverhampton after the Conquest, became Bishop of Worcester in 1096. He was notorious, despite his vow of clerical celibacy, as the father of at least three children, two of whom later became bishops. During the reign of Henry I, he transferred the church at Wolverhampton to the cathedral priory at Worcester, although its lands and privileges were protected.

During King Stephen’s reign, the church was seized by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury and Lord Chancellor. Roger was disgraced and dispossessed, and lost the church in Wolverhampton and its lands. When King Stephen then granted the church to Roger de Clinton, Bishop of Lichfield, in 1139 or 1140, the canons were outraged and appealed to Pope Eugenius III. Around the same time, the dedication was changed to Saint Peter, a flattering move in seeking the support of Rome.

Bishop Clinton gave renewed emphasis to the role of Lichfield, re-establishing it as the centre of his diocese and organising the chapter on a prebendal model to counterbalance the monastic chapter at Coventry. Wolverhampton was reorganised along similar lines, with a dean and prebendaries.

The south porch of Saint Peter’s Church, Wolverhampton, with a sundial above (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Henry II issued a charter that described the church at Wolverhampton as ‘my chapel.’ He restored its privileges and granted it freedom from secular taxation. In another charter, he recognised the right of the canons to hold a manorial court. Neither charter explicitly excluded Wolverhampton from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Lichfield, but the king recognised the church as a royal chapel.

Peter of Blois is the first-known Dean of Wolverhampton. He was a poet, lawyer and diplomat and a former tutor to William II of Sicily. By then, the college was a composed of a dean and prebendaries. The six prebends were Featherstone, Willenhall, Wobaston, Hilton, Monmore and Kinvaston. The chantry of Saint Mary in Hatherton later became a seventh prebend.

King John appointed Nicholas de Hamton as dean, but the deanery was suspended in 1203. Proposals to reform the college approved by Pope Innocent III, but were cancelled when Archbishop Hubert Walter died in 1205. Henry FitzGeoffrey was appointed Dean of Wolverhampton in 1205, to hold the deanery with its liberties and honours as his predecessors.

The new church was begun in the early 13th century, and the earliest part of the building, the crossing and south transept, date from the late 13th century.

Giles of Erdington became Dean of Saint Peter’s ca 1224, and agreed with the Bishop of Lichfield, Alexander Stavenby, on the dean’s right to appoint the prebends, while the dean recognised the bishop’s right to be received with honour at Saint Peter’s and to administer the sacraments there. However, Erdington resisted an attempted visitation by Bishop Roger de Meyland in 1260, citing a royal prohibition and a Papal rescript in 1245 that guaranteed the independence of royal chapels, which were directly subordinate to Rome, and immune from excommunication and interdict.

Erdington secured for the deanery the right to a weekly market and a yearly fair in Wolverhampton, both of which took place thereafter at the foot of the church steps.

Erdington was succeeded in 1269 by Theodosius de Camilla, an Italian and a cousin of Pope Adrian V. But he was a notorious pluralist and a career diplomat, and may not have been ordained. Theodosius appointed at least three of his family members as prebendaries, including Edward de Camilla, another Theodosius of Camilla and Gregory of Camilla.

Archbishop John Peckham was determined to bring discipline to the royal chapels. When he appeared at Saint Peter’s on 27 July 1280, the doors were shut against him. He threatened the dean and canons with excommunication and summoned the prebendaries to meet him. When the canons of all the royal chapels within the Diocese of Lichfield ignored him, he excommunicated them.

Peckham soon felt the force of royal censure, and he had to write to the Archbishop of Dublin, who was the Dean of Penkridge, and at least twice more to the king, defending his case. It was eventually accepted that Wolverhampton and other royal chapels were beyond the reach of the diocesan bishop, although he was to be honourably received in them.

Philip of Everdon was appointed dean by Edward I in 1295. While the 13th century deans had been shrewd in business, their 14th century successors struggled because of the economic crisis and the Black Death.

The crosssed keys of Saint Peter … changing the dedication to Saint Peter was a flattering move in seeking the support of Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Dean Hugh Ellis (1328-1339) was suspected of giving away much of the stock of the deanery and left the buildings in a dilapidated state. A new dean, Philip de Weston, found that Ellis had ‘wasted the goods and possessions of the deanery, whereby the divine worship and works of piety of old established there have been withdrawn.’

Cutlery, silverware, tableware, linen, precious stones, horses, livestock, and even a relic of the True Cross, had been had been given away, stolen or plundered. There was poor estate management and the canons lived dissolute lives, neglecting worship and almsgiving, and misappropriating funds.

As dean, Richard Postell (1373-1394) defended his church’s rights and liberties. But he dismissed the six priests funded by Henry I’s grant to celebrate the liturgy and for 19 years he diverted their income to himself and embezzled money entrusted to him by prominent lay members of the congregation. Near the end of his life, his tenants began a rent strike.

Lawrence Allerthorpe (1394-1406) continued to neglect the deanery. For his first three years he was also the Dean of Saint Mary’s, Stafford. Allerthorpe objected when Archbishop Thomas Arundel organised a visitation of Saint Peter’s in 1401. Later that year, Allerthorpe was appointed Lord High Treasurer. By the time he died in 1406, the chancel was in disrepair, and his successor, Dean Thomas Stanley, pilfered the money set aside for the repairs.

The two chantry chapels in the church were both well-endowed. A special lay body, the ‘wardens of the light,’ was founded in 1385 to tend a light in honour of Saint Peter. A similar group is found at Saint Editha’s Church in Tamworth. Saint Mary’s Hospital or Pyper’s Chapel was established as an almshouse and chantry, with a chaplain and six residents. Today this area is dominated by Wolverhampton bus station on Piper’s Row.

The decline of the church was stemmed by two deans, John Barningham (1437-1457) and William Dudley. Barningham was also Treasurer of York, and Dudley was also Dean of Windsor, and became Bishop of Durham in 1476.

Lionel Woodville, the Queen’s brother, was dean for a few years, and then became Chancellor of Oxford University. The next dean, Richard Beauchamp, was already Bishop of Salisbury and Dean of Windsor. Edward IV united the deanery of Wolverhampton and that of Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, in 1480.

From 1480, Wolverhampton is generally considered a Royal Peculiar, independent of the diocesan authorities. For about half a century, about half of the prebendaries of Wolverhampton were also canons of Windsor, but this practice petered out in the 16th century.

The deans and most of the canons continued to be absentees, and from 1516 James Leveson, a powerful, rich merchant, managed their estates.

The centoph at the south-west corner of Saint Peter’s Church, Wolverhampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

At the Reformation, the college was threatened with dissolution under the first Chantry Act in 1545, but survived when Henry VIII died before it was implemented. A second act was introduced in 1547 during the reign of Edward VI. The Dean argued that Wolverhampton should be exempt, as Windsor was specifically excluded under the act.

William Franklyn remained Dean of Windsor, and his income from Wolverhampton was guaranteed although limited. But the prebendal and the deanery estates were confiscated by the Crown and granted to John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland.

Queen Mary’s Counter-Reformation soon restored the old regime, and Northumberland was attainted. Saint Peter’s was the only royal peculiar in the region to be restored, the college property was restored, and Franklyn, the seven prebendaries and the sacristan were all reinstated.

Queen Elizabeth confirmed the restoration of the college in a royal charter in 1564. The running of Saint Peter’s devolved upon the sacrist, who was given a seat in the chapter.

Matthew Wren, a prominent Laudian, was appointed Dean in 1628. When Wren became Bishop of Hereford in 1634, he was succeeded as dean by his brother, Christopher Wren, father of the architect. Wren called for a visitation by Archbishop William Laud, conducted by Nathaniel Brent. Wren consecrated a new High Altar in Saint Peter’s in 1635 with an elaborate ceremony, with incense, ritual hand washing and elaborate music. When Laud was tried for treason in 1644, these events in Wolverhampton formed part of the evidence against him.

During the Civil War, Saint Peter’s was damaged considerably by the Parliamentarians in 1642, while the chapter house was attacked by royalists under Colonel Leveson, with the loss of all its records.

The college was dissolved by Parliament in 1643, when all deans and chapters were suppressed. The Puritan Richard Lee returned to Saint Peter’s as minister in 1646. An act that year abolished bishops and archbishops and further legislation in 1649 implemented the abolition of deans and chapters.

The Puritans in Wolverhampton complained: ‘the town so swarms with Papists as to be called little Rome, and there are 20 gentry families of recusants, some of whom were so turbulent last summer that the justices had to call in a troop of horse.’

With the Restoration of Charles II, the college at Saint Peter’s was restored too. In the years that followed, Saint Peter’s was effectively a parish church, but the deanery was a sinecure that took £600 a year out of the church and the economy of Wolverhampton.

An Act in 1811 legislated to reform Saint Peter’s Church, the post of sacrist was replaced by a perpetual curate, and three readerships were abolished.

The Revd William Dalton (1801-1880), a fiery Irish evangelical from Co Down, moved to Wolverhampton in 1835 as Vicar of Saint Paul’s, and began a lifelong campaign to build more churches for a growing population. He was venomously anti-Catholic, attacking both Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics, but his church-building campaign won wide support and undermined the relevance of the dean and the Royal Peculiar.

Wolverhampton gained its own civic government in 1836, taking away the last vestiges of ecclesiastical influence in the politics of the town. Henry Lewis Hobart was the last Dean of Windsor and Wolverhampton and Dr George Oliver was the last Sacrist.

The Cathedrals Act 1840 and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act 1840 lead to the suppression of the deanery. Hobart died in 1846, Oliver resigned as sacrist, and the Wolverhampton Church Act 1848 abolished the college. John Dakeyne became the Rector of Wolverhampton and the dependent chapels became parish churches, each with its own vicar. Saint Peter’s and the new parishes were integrated into the Diocese of Lichfield.

Saint Peter’s is Grade I listed building, much of which is Perpendicular in style. The oldest part of the church dates from the 12th century, but most of it dates from the 15th century. The chancel was designed by Ewan Christian and completed in 1865, to replace the old chancel that was demolished in 1862 after falling into a bad state of repair.

The mediaeval pulpit, probably from the mid-15th century, is one of the best preserved of its period, with a full set of stone steps.

The chapels have interesting monuments, from the statue of Sir Richard Leveson, who helped defeat the Spanish Armada, to John Marston (1836-1918), a Victorian manufacturer and a pioneer of the early days of the motor industry.

The ninth century carved stone column may have been part of a preaching cross or a memorial (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Near the south porch is a 14 ft stone column, carved in the ninth century with birds, animals and acanthus. It may have been a column pillaged from Roman Viriconium and brought to Wolverhampton, either as part of a preaching cross or as a memorial. The carvings have deteriorated over time, but a cast made in 1877 is in the Victorian and Albert Museum, London.

The ‘Bargain Stone’ in the church grounds is an upright stone with a hole through it. It is said that bargains made in the market were sealed by the merchants shaking hands through the hole. But, in reality, it is an old and much worn gargoyle.

The gardens facing onto Lichfield Street were originally part of the church graveyard. They were handed over to the town at the end of the 19th century and turned into gardens. The Horsman fountain is listed.

The ‘Bargain Stone’, an upright stone where it is said bargains made in the market were sealed by merchants shaking hands through the hole (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today, Saint Peter’s is part of the Parish of Central Wolverhampton. It has a strong choral foundation in keeping with the English cathedral tradition and has a Father Willis organ.

The Rector of Saint Peter’s, Canon David Wright, has left Wolverhampton after almost 14 years, to become the Chancellor of Saint Paul’s Pro-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta.

The liturgy in Saint Peter’s is in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. Vestments, reservation and the sacrament of reconciliation are all part of its tradition, and incense is used at festival services. Sunday services usually include a sung or Choral Eucharist at 11:15, and Choral Evensong. Choral Evensong is also sung on Wednesdays at 5:15.

While Saint Peter’s is without a Team Rector the Sung or Choral Eucharist at 11:15 continues on Sundays. The President and preacher at the Sung Eucharist next Sunday (27 August 2023) is the Bishop of Lichfield, the Right Revd Michael Ipgrave.

Saint Peter’s is in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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